Maybe baseball's best, Glavine only No. 3 on Braves

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ATLANTA -- Tom Glavine's curse is that he may be the best pitcher in baseball but the third-best pitcher on the Atlanta Braves.

After winning 20 games for the second year in a row, Glavine finds himself third in line against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Championship Series, which opens tonight at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

Braves manager Bobby Cox has instead decided to open the series with John Smoltz, whose curve is better than Glavine's, and follow with Steve Avery, who throws harder.

Glavine, 26, who started last year's series with Pittsburgh, will pitch third in the three-man rotation.

However, neither Smoltz nor Avery has won a Cy Young Award; Glavine has a chance to be the first pitcher since Sandy Koufax to win the honor two years in a row. Neither Smoltz nor Avery have been the All-Star Game's starting pitcher; Glavine is the first since Dave Stieb in '83-'84 to start two straight. Neither Smoltz nor Avery has won 20 games in a season; Glavine is the first Brave to have consecutive 20s since Warren Spahn did it in the 1960s.

Yet it is also true that for the second year in a row, Glavine looked like Superman in the first half of the season and Clark Kent in the second half.

Last year, he said it was fatigue that caused him to follow a 12-4 start with an 8-7 finish. The cause this year -- which Glavine revealed after losing five of his last six games -- was a cracked rib, turning a 13-3 start into a 7-5 finish.

"I was on a pretty good roll before I hurt myself, and since then it's been a struggle," Glavine said. "When you're a control pitcher and you're pitching hurt, you start changing things to compensate, and it throws your game off."

Before Glavine confessed to the cracked rib, many speculated that his woes, as well as late-season stumbles by Avery and Smoltz, were the result of the Braves' pitchers wearing out their arms with too many innings in too many complete games. Four of the team's five starters ended up pitching more than 200 innings this year.

But Glavine insists that none of the pitchers are arm-weary from throwing too many pitches.

"When you watch the guys on this team who are pitching the 200 innings, we all have good mechanics; we all throw nice and easy," Glavine said. "None of us are going out there throwing 130 or 140 pitches a night. We are going out there and getting seven or eight or nine innings with a hundred pitches."

The rib injury, which caused him to miss his first start in two years, may also cost Glavine his second Cy Young. While Glavine was skipping two starts and then losing his next two games, the Chicago Cubs' Greg Maddux became the National League's second pitcher to win 20 games this season.

Glavine isn't ready to concede anything to anyone -- just as he wasn't about to give in to the pain before he notched that 20th victory.

"I won 20 games last year, and it was good enough, and I did it again this year," he said. "If the fact that I pitched the last four weeks with rib problems and in pain is going to hurt me, then so be it. At least nobody is going to tell me I'm a wimp and I can't pitch when I was hurt."

Those who know Glavine say that same gritty, bull-headed competitiveness is what makes him a more successful pitcher than Smoltz and Avery. Confidence, consistency and control are the ingredients to Glavine's success, pitching coach Leo Mazzone said.

"He has put himself up there with the best pitchers in baseball," Mazzone said. "He's sneaky quick, has a great change of speeds and good command [control]. He's a craftsman out there."

San Francisco Giants manager Roger Craig, a former pitcher, said Glavine reminds him of Yankees Hall of Famer Whitey Ford.

"Both have a good curveball, a fastball that moved away and a good changeup," Craig said. "They are both the same size, bulldog type of guys."

The media guide lists Glavine as 6 feet 1, 190 pounds. It lied. He's maybe 5-11, 175 wrapped in a wet towel. For an athlete, Glavine is slight, almost delicate in his features. His face is lean, his lips thin, his eyes dark and intense.

Whether recounting a brilliant victory or an agonizing loss, Glavine talks the same way he pitches: steadily, calmly and controlled. There is nothing outrageous about the man, just as there is nothing overpowering about the pitcher.

He's the type of player who inspires confidence from his teammates but not nicknames. Greg Maddux is the Mad Dog. Dwight Gooden is Doc. Roger Clemens is The Rocket. But Glavine is just Glavine, or sometimes Glav, but more often merely Tommy.

"I'm not very outspoken; I'm not flashy; I'm not controversial," he said. "I am the way I am, and I like being quiet."

It may be his low-profile personality -- the very key to his success -- that has denied him the recognition that many feel he deserves.

An unassuming overachiever, Glavine grew up in a working-class neighborhood outside Boston as the son of a construction contractor. After high school he had the choice of pursuing either a hockey career with the National Hockey League's Los Angeles Kings or a life in baseball with the Braves. He picked baseball, and Cox is glad he did.

"How many times do you get the chance to manage a 20-game winner two years in a row? He's right at the top," said the Braves manager.

Although he throws a good slider, curve and fastball, the pitch that made Glavine one of the best in baseball was his accidental discovery of the changeup in 1989. Plucking a ball from the grass during spring training one day, Glavine found a way to hold the ball that gave him the correct arm motion and reduced the velocity, which made for an effective off-speed pitch. That year, he went 14-8. The year before, he was 7-17.

"With the control of his changeup, his fastball even looks that much harder," catcher Greg Olson said. "Any time a pitcher has control of three or four pitches like Tommy does, he's going to be very effective and win a lot of games."

Spahn has his name immortalized on the outfield wall of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. A larger-than-life bronze statue of pitcher Phil Niekro is planted in the concrete outside the stadium.

Glavine's name may one day grace the outfield wall, and his likeness may someday be cast in bronze. But as a kid, Tommy Glavine never idolized the ballplayers immortalized with retired numbers, plaques and statues.

"The only guy I wanted to live my life after was my dad," Glavine said. "He was really the only guy I ever put on a pedestal, and he was never an athlete."

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